Maine Compass: The future of clean energy hinges on workforce development programs and union work.

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The exposure to my current career path came after accidentally starting a fire in a home improvement endeavor. After calling a trained electrician for help, we engaged in an enlightening conversation about his background, which prompted me to further research the profession. I immediately decided on a career change from retail to daily electrician. Like my father before me, I am now a member of my local industry union in Maine. For the past two years, I have served as the Training Director for the International Fraternity of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 567. I started my path to daily electrician in the same apprenticeship program I now oversee.

Despite growing up in a union household, at first I didn’t understand the purpose of being one. I expect all employers to provide their workers with the means for sustainable living and retirement. But union jobs in the electricity industry provide higher wages, a safer work environment, job security, and benefits, including retirement and medical. As a child, I suffered from ear problems which, without the union health insurance my father received, we would not have been able to afford treatment. The guild benefits saved me a lifetime of pain.

Since I participated in the IBEW internship program, there has been a shift in the industry that has provided a different experience and learning opportunity. In particular, the increasing use of renewable energy and investments made through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in electric vehicles (EV) and EV infrastructure.

Since 2020, our number of first-year internships has almost doubled as opportunities in solar and other renewable energy jobs have expanded due to increased investment at the state and federal level. This job opportunity allows us to offer additional placements in our internship program for those who wish to pursue a career as an electrician at low cost — all with fair compensation. As the demand for electric power increases in the clean energy economy, we offer courses that better train our workers for the jobs of tomorrow.

In 2021, I teach my first EV charger installation class, a critical component of preparing for the new jobs created by IIJA’s investment in installing a nationwide EV charger network. The Biden Administration has set a goal for half of all new vehicles sold to be electric by 2030. Building our country’s EV charging infrastructure is necessary to make this broad-scale EV adoption a reality.

IIJA is not only a job creation victory for union members, but also a victory for protecting our communities from the worsening consequences of climate change. On average, EVs emit 67% less pollution than conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines. Using renewable energy to charge an EV could eliminate its emissions altogether. So, in addition to good pay, union work, investing in EVs helps reduce exhaust air pollution that causes respiratory, cardiovascular, and other health problems — all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating the climate crisis.

As we continue to improve our public infrastructure to reduce pollution and increase resilience to climate change, we must ensure these efforts are transformative. Leaders must safeguard the economic security of the workers needed to advance the clean energy economy and its long-term maintenance. Public investment must be paired with good employment standards, such as Project Employment Agreements and apprenticeship utilization requirements. Registered internship programs are a conduit for moving people into the high-skill, high-paying, and in-demand jobs created by this transition. These programs strengthen our workforce, teach valuable skills, and create opportunities for workers to find safe haven in the middle class or to change career paths.

Investing in green technology and renewable energy reduces family energy bills, public health problems, and pollution while making the power grid more reliable. Continuing investment in these technologies and promoting good employment standards and workforce development programs — such as those found in Maine’s 1969 LD, now signed into law — will create quality clean energy jobs and advance equity in the renewable energy industry. This is critical to ensuring workers can gain access to these fields, learn trade skills, and earn wages and benefits that will sustain a career in building and maintaining greener infrastructure.

Justin Walsh is the director of training for the local electrical union.

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